When an emergency isn’t really an emergency, where do you go?

When an emergency isn’t really an emergency, where do you go?

 6 Ways to Know It’s NOT an Emergency

I love this job. I get to write stories that help people understand how to use their health care the right way. And how to get the most from their health care benefits. It’s like giving advice at a dinner party but getting paid for it. Who wouldn’t love that?

One thing I’ve been talking about for years has been emergency care. What it is, and what it isn’t. My friends are tired of hearing about it.

I get it. When your child is sick on a Friday night, your first thought isn’t about choosing the best place to go to save time and money. Your first thought is to do what you can to keep your child from pain and suffering. And since you aren’t a doctor, you also aren’t sure how serious that fever is or what could happen if you don’t get care right away. Am I right?

There isn’t anything I can say to make you think that choosing the right place to go is more important than getting care right away. I’m in the business of knowing this stuff, and I still would make my choice based on what my child needs. Not how much it will cost me.

So, let’s talk about it now, while you aren’t in panic mode. Let’s make a list that will stick in your head, so the next time you need to decide what to do, your brain will take you in the right direction without a second thought.

Here’s a starting list of times you don’t need to go to the ER. Enjoy.

  1. Bean up the nose. Your two-year-old has noticed that some things fit nicely in his nose. Like that black bean that ended up on the kitchen floor instead of in the pot. He may scream when he finds it isn’t so easy to get it out, but he isn’t dying. Make a joke that will get him to laugh or give him candy to distract him. Then call his doctor. After hours? Try a retail health clinic. It really just takes someone with the right tools and know-how to get it out. Speaking of, you could end up needing an ER doc if you try to get it out on your own with tweezers or something pointy. If you can’t get him to blow it out or push it out with your fingers from outside the nostril, leave it and make a call.
  2. Floors don’t bounce. That pick-up game of basketball with the teens 10 years younger than you seemed like a cool idea. But then it has your head bouncing on the hard gym floor. Yes, you could have a concussion. It would be good to have it looked at. But no, you don’t need a stretcher. Have a friend or one of the kids old enough to drive take you to a retail health clinic or urgent care center. You shouldn’t drive, but you likely don’t need the ER.
  3. Cough, cough, repeat. Been coughing a lung up for a week and it isn’t getting better? You can spend six hours coughing in an ER waiting room, or one hour coughing at an urgent care center. The results will be the same, but you’ll spend a lot more time and money to get the same prescription. The three other options for care will take good care of you. And if you’re on day seven of your cough fest, it’s safe to say it isn’t an emergency.
  4. Your doctor doesn’t get you. If you don’t want to call your doctor because you don’t like him, make a note to change doctors later and then head to a retail health clinic. When you’re sick isn’t the time to shop for a new doctor, but it isn’t an excuse to go to the ER.
  5. “I can’t walk!” Youth soccer games are the best place to hear this one. And to see a coach carrying a kid off the field. Nine times out of 10, it’s a twisted ankle or a sprain. Wait a bit to see if she decides she’s okay to go back in the game. If it’s swollen or hot to the touch, head home, prop it up with pillows and put an ice bag on it. If you can tell she’s in a lot of pain and it doesn’t go away after several hours, take her to an urgent care center for an X-ray. They’ll tell you if it’s broken and send you to the ER from there, if needed.
  6. “Oh! My aching back.” You had to have known I’d include this one. If you’ve had back pain in the past and it got better with time, you know it probably isn’t broken. Even if you haven’t, it probably isn’t broken. And even if it’s something serious like a bulging disc, it isn’t an emergency. Yes, get it taken care of. No, not in the ER. They’ll tell you to use a higher dose of ibuprofen and call a doctor in the morning. You may get an X-ray (that you could have gotten somewhere else), but you probably won’t be rushed back for emergency surgery, and you won’t wobble out with a script for heavy duty pain meds. Not gonna happen.

Going to an ER doctor for any of these problems is like going to a heart specialist when you have a cold. Let those guys use their time to take care of the heart attacks, gunshot wounds and car crash victims. 

Think of it this way: If you don’t need an ambulance with sirens blaring -- speeding to the nearest ER -- you might not need the care of a highly trained ER doctor. If you can call the ER to see how busy they are, it probably isn’t the right time to go.

And here’s the lecture part my friends hate: If you’re at the ER for anything but an emergency, you’re in the wrong place.

Want a longer list? Leave me a note in the comments. The full list isn’t going to fit here.

Last updated: 3/19/2019

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